Books on TV Interview with Barbara Barnett

In our last author interview, we introduced you to Suzanne Gardner, co-author of our upcoming guide to Glee.

This time we’re talking to Barbara Barnett, author of our House, M.D. guide Chasing Zebras.

In Chasing Zebras, you talk about how you rarely are completely taken with a TV show, and that before your House addiction started, this happened with the X-Files. Can you see any connections between the two shows? Or did House appeal to a different side of you?

In several ways both shows hold the same appeal. First, Fox Mulder, the hero of X-Files is an outcast, iconoclastic figure with a tragic past. He is a super-intelligent, moody romantic hero like House, but Mulder is a much more “classic” hero, complete with a well-defined quest. Both characters are truth seekers and willing to go to extremes to find it. That sort of antihero has always appealed to me—since I was a kid. You always know there’s something going on under the surface and I’m always compelled to find out what. Both shows are framed upon a formulaic, procedural structure, but are much more complex just beneath the surface. They also share in common smart, fast-paced dialogue; humor; and pathos.

What made you think that House deserved the TV companion treatment, and what kinds of things will you be analyzing in Chasing Zebras?

House is a medical procedural. On its surface it has a straightforward formula: mystery symptom, test and guess, guess and test, crisis, eureka! Mystery solved; patient cured. But the show is much more than that. Dr. Gregory House is such a fascinating character and so much is going on beneath the dialogue and within the formulaic structure of his universe that I really felt a companion would be fun for series fans and a good introduction for new viewers (and with House now in syndication as well as first run, very timely). Most importantly, I wanted to create something that would appeal to the series’ very intelligent fanbase, while paying homage to a series I love.

House has something to say about everything from chronic pain to medical ethics, individual rights to the nature of happiness. For example, House has an (idiosyncratic) but very well-defined ethical code, so I delve into that in some detail with lots of examples from six seasons of episodes in a chapter called “Doing the Right Thing.” In addition to tackling the show’s social commentary, I also analyze each of characters, their histories, relationships, and points of view in a (hopefully) fun way.

A big part of the book is its extensive episode guide (current through the end of season six). In addition to summarizing each episode, I’ve pulled some of the “highlights”: “Zebra of the Week” (the week’s diagnosis); “Shipper Alert” (relationship moments); “A Fine Bromance” (House-Wilson moment); “Title Tale” (meaning of the episode’s title), to name but a few. Several episodes of each season are highlighted for deeper analysis in “Closer Look” sidebars throughout the episode guide.

You write a regular feature for Blogcritics called “Welcome to the End of the Thought Process.” Tell us a bit about how you landed the gig, and give us a sense of what you write about week-to-week.

I had been writing a “Livejournal” called “House Reviews and Analysis” since mid–season two. I’d also been a frequent poster on Television Without Pity’s House forum, so I wasn’t completely unknown in the fan community. Blogcritics had a very popular, well-written House blog until the end of season three when its writer went on to other things. I read her column weekly and hung on her every word. When she left, several friends (and one in particular) encouraged me to email Blogcritics and try to fill the void.

I had no idea at the time (November 2007) that they would have any interest in me or what I had to say about House! But the publishers let me give it a try, and “Welcome to the End of the Thought Process” was born. During the season, I write lengthy commentaries on each new episode, usually starting from something that strikes me about the story in some way—rarely it’s the medicine (or only the medicine). Looking back, it’s interesting to observe how rarely I actually discuss the episode’s medical mystery in my commentaries, which often run more than 2000 words. While interesting, it’s not what “gets to me” me about the show, so I give my nod to the “zebra” (medical anomaly) of the week and move on to the far more interesting aspects of the episode.

During the hiatuses, I write what I think might be interesting to my readers: essays about all sorts of Housian things; trivia quizzes; polls. I’ve even been campaigning for Hugh Laurie to win an Emmy the last few weeks! I wrote about Band From TV (a charity band in which Hugh and Jesse Spencer play) during their trip to Chicago a couple of weeks ago, and was lucky enough to get an interview with Jesse, who plays Chase on the show.

You’ve interviewed a number of the writers and actors associated with House. Was there one interview that was especially thrilling to conduct?

I’ve loved doing all my interviews. I love talking to the writers and have had the incredible good fortune discuss the season finale with its writers the last three years running (Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend in season four, Doris Egan in season five, and Lerner, Friend, and Peter Blake this season). It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to sit down for an hour (on the phone) with the gifted writers who put those words into House’s mouth and discuss the episodes in such great detail. This season, I also had the chance to interview Lerner and Friend (who are also executive producers) at length right after the season premiere “Broken,” which won a Writers Guild Award this year. It was also a huge thrill last year interviewing Katie Jacobs, discussing everything from the series’ music to the character of Dr. Gregory House (and the brilliance of the actor who portrays him).

Would you ever want to be on Dr. House’s team of fellows? Which fellow do you think you’re the most like?

Well, I’m not a doctor, but I do have a science background, so it would be incredibly fun. I fascinated by scientific anomalies and tend (like House) to be tenacious about solving them. Like House, I dabble in lots of things: music, reading, tinkering; I can definitely relate to his insatiable curiosity about everything.

If you had to convince people to watch House with just one episode, which one would it be and why?

Wow. Hardest question I’ve been asked. (It would be easier, but not much, to note 10!) I would say if it’s only one, watch the Pilot—the very first episode. It’s all there in a nutshell. We see House for who he is: snarky, reclusive, disdainful of authority, cynical, funny—and passionate, compassionate, dedicated, damaged inside and out. The pilot establishes the series rhythm and relationships between House and Cuddy —and House and Wilson. House’s conversation with the patient towards the end of the episode is classic and still stands as one of the series’ best moments.

One of the things you track in the episode guide to Chasing Zebras is Shipper moments. Is there a particular relationship that excites you most?

I’ve always loved the relationship between House and Cuddy (Okay! There, I’ve said it). There were sparks between them from nearly the beginning of the series. That said, I also enjoyed the flirtation between House and Cameron during the series first couple of seasons—as well as the time when his old lover Stacy briefly returned. During that story arc, we learned a lot about what lies beneath that misanthropic façade of his.

To finish up, what other shows are part of your regular viewing schedule?

I was sad to see The Tudors end (but Henry VIII couldn’t live forever). I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report every day along with the “real” news, and I’m looking forward to Caprica resuming on Syfy. It’s a nice prequel to Battlestar Galactica, a much underrated series that concluded last year.

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